College Protests – Then and Now                                     

monochrome photo of resist signage
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As a veteran of the student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I can’t help but compare and contrast what we did then with the student protests happening right now.  A surface glance might see them as similar – college students demonstrating against a war. But a more penetrating look will reveal that they are much different in tone, content, and intention.

My first experience with college protests was in 1969, the beginning of my Freshman year. I helped organize the mid-November Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam on my campus. It was a “Day of Peace Education and Prayer” with faculty members teaching. Topics included ‘What is the War Doing to America?” (Ramifications of withdrawal, American policy and its affect on society, the peace dividend and the Moratorium’s efficacy), “Dissent in a Democracy”, “An Historian Looks at Vietnam”, “The Impending American Crisis” (What have we learned from the Russian and Nazi revolutions that can help us understand American today?), “The Church, the Synagogue, and the Peace Movement” (Judeo-Christian teaching on war and peace; Will praying for peace end the war?; Is the establishment misusing religion for its own purposes?). The day ended with a poetry reading and a candlelight procession. We also marched in local protests chanting “Peace Now!” and “No More War!” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” An article in our university newspaper concluded, “Despite student protest, 39,000 Americans have died in Vietnam so far – and still the war goes on.” Imagine, students seeking the insights of learned professors on the issues of the day! It seemed obvious to us that this was what universities were supposed to be about.

I continued to protest the war and the draft of young men to fight it through the early 1970s, getting arrested four times. We were nonviolent and driven by the conviction that the war was wrong. It was a war by our government and young Americans were directly affected. Our local collectives had many meetings before each action to nail down our thoughts behind the protest and to strategize. Everything came from within our group with no outside direction.

By contrast, the pro-Palestine (actually anti-Israel) protests today are in reaction to a war that does not directly involve or affect American students. Some students say they demonstrate for humanitarian reasons.  I remember being shocked and saddened by the horrors of war as I came of age. It’s normal to mourn the deaths of children and the destruction of war, and maybe jump to the conclusion that no war is justified if the innocent suffer. However, there are horrific wars going on in Ukraine and Sudan, which are not being protested. Where did these masked, keffiyeh wearing protestors come from and why? If it is not self-interest, what is their motivation for demonstrating?

When I was studying engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 70s, one of my best friends was the president of the Arab Student Association and a Palestinian. I was probably the only non-Arab pro-Palestinian student on campus. There was no movement. I remember this friend warning me (concerning the Palestinian situation), “This is our struggle, so stay out of it!” I was happy to do so since I didn’t know anything about it anyway. Nobody I knew ever wore a keffiyeh in California, and it would have seemed bizarre to see non-Arabs and especially women wearing them. Now, apparently, Middle Eastern political actors have found it advantageous to share both the struggle and the keffiyeh, along with a host of anti-Israel, anti-American and antisemitic slogans, with students most of whom likewise don’t know anything about the Middle East.

One aspect that both the protests of the 1960s and today have in common is the demand for divestment and economic boycotts. In the anti-Vietnam War era we called for an economic boycott of corporations that supply war materials. Now the demand is for divestment from any company or organization that has economic ties with Israel. Whether these demands were feasible or effective strategy seemed irrelevant.  Tony Fels, a student protest leader from the late 1960s turned history professor, in his article The Fog of Youth: The Cornell Student Takeover, 50 Years On, writes,

Whether peaceful or confrontational in design, nearly all these forms of campus activism framed themselves as “demands.”  With the barest of exceptions, radical students showed little interest in putting forth proposals, making suggestions, or engaging in reasoned dialogue in order to bring about reforms at Cornell or in their wider communities. Leftists produced plenty of leaflets and other information, increasingly in the name of anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist ideals, aimed at attracting more students to their side, but their unstated goal was expression far more urgent than persuasion. Persuasion by its very nature proceeds slowly, whereas student demands were expected to be met immediately. Even negotiations were frowned upon as likely to lead to unacceptable compromise.*

The current protests against Israel are definitely framed as an us-versus-them fight, righteous students versus their “genocide complicit” university. Students demand and the university is expected to comply – or else! I don’t see any of the yearning for peace that we held as we sang Give Peace a Chance, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and Kumbaya. We were the tail of the hippie era and were about love, peace and sing-ins to accompany our sit-ins. Today, we hear harsh slogans and a call for more war, indeed a global intifada. The Students for Justice in Palestine’s website posts their objectives:

We seek a political framework that addresses collective liberation from Palestine to the Rio Grande. We believe the struggle for a free Palestine is also the struggle for Black liberation, gender and sexual freedom, and a livable and sustainable planet. All pursuits for freedom, justice, and equality are materially connected and require us to struggle against state violence, colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, in all of their forms.

When they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” I didn’t think the river was the Rio Grande! This language is reminiscent of Soviet and international communist phraseology. “All pursuits…are materially connected and require us to struggle …” is straight out of Marxist-Leninist literature that I was familiar with in the 1970s and thought would fade away after the breakup of the USSR and the decline of world communism, but apparently not. What a clever trick to try to connect your cause, whatever it may be, to a list of progressive causes! But, how Hamas’ attacks and ideology further “gender and sexual freedom” or “the struggle against state violence” is hard to fathom.

Despite my years of involvement with Left causes, I find the current anti-Israel protests jarring. They seem extreme and from my now Zionist point of view horrifying. The anti-Zionism is a threat to Israel and the accompanying antisemitism harmful to the Jewish people. As I wrap up, I want to share an example of this in our home on Yom HaShoah.

I live in a house with 9 other family members. Two of those are Michael (19) and Dean (18), who are brothers from the Philippines. They have been here one year and are graduating from public high school in a month. Back home they went to 11 years of Catholic school. They are both straight- A students.

Michael had a Dungeons and Dragons game meeting here at our house for 4 hours on Sunday with about 8 high school kids. As they were finishing up, one of the girls, in the course of the conversation, said “Jews are rats committing a genocide.” 

Well, Dean overheard this and went up to his brother, and quietly urged him, “You have got to say something!”  So, Michael took the girl over to our front door and pointed to our mezuzah and said, “This is a Jewish home.”

My son Ben was watching, and he reported that the girl looked mortified.

There is no doubt that youngsters are being influenced by the current climate.

But I very much appreciate my step-grandsons, who are turning into very ethical and capable young men. They give me hope.

*Fels, Tony, Professor Emeritus of History, University of San Francisco, The Fog of Youth: The Cornell Student Takeover, 50 Years On — Tony Fels

1 Comment

  1. Regina, thanks for your thoughtful comments and insights.

    It is extremely troubling to see the blind adherence to intersectionality. That is, if you support cause A, you automatically (Knee jerk) support unrelated cause B and oppose unrelated cause C without bothering to study the merits of the separate issues.

    This leads to complete absurdities that point to the ignorance and intellectual dishonesty of the protesters.

    By way of example, the near universal support that gay rights groups give to the Palestinians. This is in spite of the fact that in Palestinian society, as in much of the middle east, homophobia has been raised to fanatical proportions. As in Jordan, if a member of the family is gay, the father or siblings are honor bound to kill him or her. This is the notorious “Honor Killing” that is quasi legal under Palestinian and Jordanian law. Someone once remarked that “Gays for Palestine” makes about as much sense as “Chickens for KFC”.

    Women who profess blind support for Palestinian causes should take a long hard look at the status of women in Gaza or in the Palestinian administered areas in the west bank.

    Global warming is a real and increasingly deadly threat. That makes it especially distressing that all too many environmentalists have unthinkingly jumped on the anti-Israel bandwagon. Most striking is Greta Thunberg who enthusiastically trashed her reputation, not missing any anti-Israel demonstration, even leading to her arrest at the Eurovision Contest in Malmo. This is in spite of the fact that you would be hard pressed to find an Islamist terrorist who gives a hoot about the environment.

    And please do not make any mistake, The nihilistic radical Islamic forces do not intend to stop at Israel’s borders. Jihad is a global campaign that is set on spreading its bloody tentacles across the “infidel” West. Yes, including Sweden, Greta. Don’t take my word for it. Read the Hamas charter.

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